The Charges Against The Police Officers Involved In Tyre Nichols' Death Explained

On January 7, 2023, Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man from Tennessee, was pulled over by officers from the Memphis Police Department for alleged reckless driving. According to Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, he was returning from his job at FedEx and was just two minutes away from his home when he was pulled over (via ABC News). The exact sequence of events is unclear because body camera footage has not been released to the public as of this publication. From an official standpoint, in an initial statement (via The New York Times), Memphis police said that Nichols attempted to run away after they approached his vehicle. When they caught up to him, the violence towards Nichols was so bad that the police called an ambulance.

Nichols died in the hospital from his injuries three days later. An independent autopsy commissioned by the family found that Nichols "suffered extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating," an attorney for the family, Benjamin Crump, said (per HuffPost). The family's attorneys, who saw bodycam footage, said Nichols did not run when he was first approached by police but was soon brutally beaten for three minutes. In May 2023, the medical examiner in Memphis released autopsy report that concluded Nichols died from blows to the head, Associated Press reports. The report also said that Nichols had alcohol (0.49%) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in his system — low levels, accoridng to Dr. Andrew Stolbach, a medical toxicologist with Johns Hopkins Medicine. Elsewhere, The New York Times noted that Nichols had "well below the legal limit [of ehtanol] for driving in Tennessee."

Per ABC News, the attorneys said Nichols told police that he was "just trying to get home" from work when he was pulled over. At the end of the video, attorneys said Nichols was heard yelling for his mother. "He was a human piñata for those police officers," said Antonio Romanucci, an attorney for the family, per The Guardian.

The start of an investigation

A week later, on January 15, 2023, the Memphis Police Department announced it had begun internal administrative investigations, per The New York Times. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations was asked to conduct a use-of-force investigation. On January 26, 2023, the five Memphis police officers charged in the brutal beating death of Tyre Nichols were Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmit Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith. All of them are Black men who have been with the department between two-and-a-half and five years, per Reuters. They have been charged with one count of second-degree murder, two counts of official misconduct, one count of official oppression, one count of aggravated assault, and two counts of aggravated kidnapping. For Smith, the counts were doubled. 

Although many of the charges were straightforward, questions quickly arose about the aggravated kidnapping charges. In a press conference, Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy explained the charges of aggravated kidnapping. Per CNN, Mulroy defined kidnapping as "any unlawful confinement of another which substantially restrains someone's liberty." He said that even if the detention of Nichols was legal at one point, it became illegal and veered into unlawful detention. "The aggravated nature of the charge is because if that kidnapping resulted in bodily injury, that's one grounds for saying that it is aggravated kidnapping," Mulroy said. "If the persons involved in that unlawful restraint of liberty possessed weapons, that is another ground for saying that the kidnapping was aggravated."

Government officials express condemnation

When the officers were charged, officials at every level of government condemned the police violence that led to the death of Tyre Nichols. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland expressed outrage not only for Nichols and his family, but also for the police officers who attempt to uphold the oath they took. "I am sad and angry for the family of Tyre Nichols. I am also angry for the many good men and women of the Memphis Police Department who devote their lives to serving our citizens," Strickland said, per CNN. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said in a statement (via Yahoo! News) that "[C]ruel, criminal abuse of power will not be tolerated in the state."

President Joe Biden said law enforcement officers must be held accountable when they violate the oaths they take. "Public trust is the foundation of public safety and there are still too many places in America today where the bonds of trust are frayed or broken," Biden said (via The Hill). "Tyre's death is a painful reminder that we must do more to ensure that our criminal justice system lives up to the promise of fair and impartial justice, equal treatment, and dignity for all." Biden also called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which aims to increase accountability on those violating law enforcement misconduct policies and to restrict policing policies such as racial profiling, per NBC News.

Attempting to simmer tensions

The Memphis city government said it would release the body camera footage of Tyre Nichols' beating and arrest sometime after 6 p.m. on January 27, 2023. Per CNN, the video does not capture the entire incident between Nichols and the police. However, those who have seen the footage warn that was is depicted is highly disturbing.

In anticipation of potential rioting, once the video is released, Police Chief Cerelyn Davis (above) pleaded with the public to keep protests from turning violent. "I expect you to feel what the Nichols family feels," she said, per the New York Post. "I expect you to feel outrage in the disregard of basic human rights, as our police officers have taken an oath to do the opposite of what transpired on the video." She added: "I expect our citizens to exercise their First Amendment right to protest, to demand action and results. But we need to ensure our community is safe in this process. None of this is a calling card for inciting violence or destruction on our community or our citizens."

President Joe Biden backed up the family of Tyre Nichols in imploring people to protest peacefully. "As Americans grieve, the Department of Justice conducts its investigation, and state authorities continue their work, I join Tyre's family in calling for peaceful protest," Biden said (via HuffPost). "Outrage is understandable, but violence is never acceptable. Violence is destructive and against the law. It has no place in peaceful protests seeking justice."